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Nunu & Willump rework analysis: Childlike wonder and whimsy

Riot has made something magical, and we’re talking beyond the new design

Riot Games

Let’s cut straight to the chase. I didn’t just love Nunu & Willump’s reveal trailer — it made me cry real, human tears. While this is every bit a testament to Riot’s truly amazing video team (if you’ll recall, I couldn’t shut up about Akali’s trailer either), I think it goes to show just how genuine the emotional core of Riot’s latest rework actually is. Give me more champions having fun! Stop making them “actually thousands of years old” or whatever, too — but I digress.

Unlike other recently updates, Nunu’s past isn’t littered with controversy - or much of anything, to be honest. O.G. fans will remember the famous “Empire” ultimate (look it up) and its short-lived legacy in professional play, but otherwise Nunu’s kept a relatively low profile. In fact, “largely forgettable except when you’re losing to him” is an almost perfect summation of Nunu’s modern track record — so seeing this outdated duo be rebooted into a leading-role-worthy Runeterran Calvin & Hobbes is both impressive and, in hindsight, the obvious answer to get us all to pay attention.

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While Nunu & Willump still retain their simplicity with an easy-to-approach set of abilities, locking in and expecting a smooth ride is just asking to have the snowball turned right back against you. Understanding exactly how these friendly adventurers differ from their previous incarnation is key. That’s where I come in: forget all the philosophy for one article — we’re actually talking mechanics, baby.

Considering the original

Before we can truly appreciate the Nu-nuance of Nunu & Willump’s modernized skillset, we have to take a hard look at what all the old Nunu actually did.

As the poster-child for counter-jungling, it’s difficult not to just point to that and call it a day; but I’ll take it a step further. Nunu was a champion almost entirely defined not by how much he could contribute in the traditional sense, but in how far he’d set enemies behind. Consume out-damaging Smite on a lower cooldown rendered many games non-starters if Nunu could get a hold of the enemy jungler’s starting buff camps (sometimes right in their faces). Blood Boil would send an attack speed based ally’s DPS through the roof while Ice Blast’s rare and extremely powerful attack speed slow would shut down an enemy’s carry from doing much of anything.

Thus the appeal of Nunu wasn’t to become unkillable or hard-carry, but to be a constant, potent annoyance. This emergent niche certainly set him apart from other tanks on the roster, but was as risky as it was effective. Without any real individual threat outside of an unrealistic full channeled ultimate, a struggling Nunu would just run around, unable to protect a buffed ally while not being valuable enough to be hunted down. With so much of Nunu’s agency tied into these buffs and debuffs, his value as a game goes on became compressed to meat-shield, Blood Boil bot or both.

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Don’t get me wrong. Nunu’s old abilities were back-breaking when he was allowed to shine, but these extremes were rarely reconciled when it came to balancing. Either Nunu was a great tank that also happened to possess a bunch of unique, frustrating abilities or Nunu was balanced around having this disruptive skill ceiling at the cost of demanding perfect utilization of those strengths to succeed.

Change for the better

So what about the new? Well, designer Xenogenic seems to have tackled Nunu’s intense feast or famine with a simple guiding philosophy: give Nunu lots more to actually do, but limit how easily he can do them. For example, by linking Blood Boil to Nunu’s basic attacks, Nunu can no longer “just buff”’ the carry. Instead, he’ll need to actually put himself in danger to use his passive. This means that Nunu’s value in a long fight goes way up as he stacks Blood Boil’s buff time on an ally, but a simple disengage can contain him and his frenzied allies from going off. Similarly, adding tons more bonus health ratio scaling is a concession to how much more susceptible to kiting Nunu & Willump are by letting them naturally withstand more in-fight punishment. There’s a nice flow to the reward structure of “hit thing, give allies value” that feels so much more effective than just hitting a single button, showing that Riot’s commitment to siphoning invisible power in favor of more active alternatives is an elegant solution to a tricky situation.

It’s not all just negative power redistribution, however. Much of Nunu & Willump’s power has been relocated to Biggest Snowball Ever!, an ability so pure League doesn’t deserve it. (Hear that, cute giant snowball? You’re too good for this rift.) The overall map mobility, gank pathing and engage potential on a champion that previously had very little make this ability as whimsical as it is deadly. This ability alone has very large implications for professional play. Nunu was always borderline pickable for his powerful supportive properties, but was easy to counter — mainly if the enemy picked lots of defensive tools to stuff his approach. Having a mini Sion ultimate on such a short cooldown does a lot to alleviate those pressures and give Nunu & Willump multiple avenues for attack — something the pair never had access to before.

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An unforgettable duo

In the end, Nunu & Willump are much more battle-focused supports that actually want to be in the thick of it — a stark contrast from the non-committal mischief of their previous incarnation. New adventurers should feel more comfortable than ever starting fights for their team, (provided they can steer the snowball properly) and reap the benefits of Nunu & Willump’s mastery over long fights. So if you like to stack tons of health, get in the enemy team’s face and bother them like no tomorrow? You might have a new friend waiting in the client. For those who will miss his annoying-yet-effective buffs and debuffs while skirting the edge of combat? There’s always Lulu.

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